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VIDEO: Should San Francisco Lower Its Voting Age? (with Lesson Plan)

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They pay taxes. They have to abide by the same laws as everyone else. And many are old enough to work and get behind the wheel.

But for teens under 18, the right to vote is still out of reach.

And that’s not fair, say a number of youth rights groups, who for years have pushed to lower America's voting age to 16. In a nation with notoriously low voter turnout -- particularly among 18- to 24-year-olds -- allowing more young people to vote, advocates claim, would boost civic participation and give students a voice in local public affairs.

And some local campaigns to lower the voting age in various cities around the country have started to gain traction, as have the broader efforts of national youth civics groups like Generation Citizen and the National Youth Rights Association.

This year, San Francisco supervisors approved Proposition F for the November 2016 ballot. The measure would  lower the city's voting age for local elections, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for mayor and other city officials, as well as school board and citywide initiatives.  It follows a multi-year organizing effort by Vote16 SF and the San Francisco Youth Commission. If the measure passes,  San Francisco would become the first major city in the country to extend voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds (effective for the next municipal election).


A similar initiative in Berkeley -- Measure Y1 -- would allow16- and 17-year-olds to vote, but only for school board members. There are also efforts to get similar measures up for a vote in states across the country.

Nationwide, only two municipalities -- the Maryland cities of Hyattsville and Tacoma Park -- have passed ordinances lowering their voting ages to 16 for local elections.

Although the voting age is still 18 in a majority of the world's democracies, several nations including Austria, Argentina, Brazil, and Nicaragua have already lowered the voting age for national elections to 16.

Not everyone agrees ...

Skeptics, however,  argue that too many young people simply lack the life experience and knowledge to make informed decisions in the voting booth.

"I think it's a dumb idea," argued Curtis Gans, former director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate at American University. "The voting age was set at 18 because that's the age at which people could be drafted and die for their country. [Those under 18] don't have enough life experience or history and don't know the issues in enough detail."

Additionally, opponents argue, the nation's minimum voting age often sets the precedent for other age ceilings. Sexual consent and criminal responsibility age limits, for instance, vary state by state but never exceed 18. If the voting age were lowered to 16, some fear, states could start treating 16-year-olds as adults in matters of consent and criminal prosecution.

The slow path to the ballot

Throughout U.S. history, voting has gradually grown more inclusive, a result of hard-fought political battles waged by disenfranchised populations.

Upon adoption of the U.S. Constitution, voting in most states was reserved for white male property owners. In fact, the nation's founding document, as originally drafted, never explicitly guarantees the right to vote to anyone.

By the mid-Nineteenth Century, most states had dropped property requirements. And with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, voting rights were granted to all male citizens, 21 and older, regardless of color. It took another half-century before the passage of the 19th Amendment, extending the vote to women.

Young people in Seattle march in support of lowering the national voting age to 18.
Young people in Seattle march in support of lowering the national voting age to 18 (1969). (Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry )

But it wasn't until 1971 that America lowered its voting age to 18. The 26th Amendment was ratified largely as a result of heated student opposition to the Vietnam War and the contention that if an 18-year-old was old enough to be drafted into the military and fight for his country, he should also be considered mature enough to influence political outcomes.

"Old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” became the movement's campaign slogan.

The effort extended suffrage to millions of 18-20-year-olds.

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